Iowa caucuses : 5 things to watch as voters make their choices

The keys to victory for Biden, Sanders, Warren and the other Democrats vying to take on Trump.
Image: The stage at a Joe Biden campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Jan. 29, 2020.
A Joe Biden campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Jan. 29, 2020.Mark Peterson / Redux

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

DES MOINES, Iowa — We've finally arrived at the end of the beginning of a primary process that has been under way for over a year as Iowa Democrats take the first real vote on Monday night in choosing a candidate to face off against President Donald Trump.

The Democratic slate started as the biggest presidential field in history and the contest has been among its most volatile, making the caucuses and trajectory of the race that will come out of them especially important — and difficult to predict.

Eleven candidates are still in the running, though only seven have actively competed in Iowa.

A poor showing could abruptly end the hopes of not only some long-shots, but one or more of the leading candidates as well, most of whom are counting on an victory in Iowa or a strong showing to help power (and fund) the rest of their campaigns.

This year's caucuses will have added complexity, thanks to a new rule that changes the way results are announced. And they ended up sandwiched between the Super Bowl and the State of the Union address, and overshadowed by the Senate impeachment trail, which has kept some leading candidates off the trail and back in Washington.

Here's what you need to watch Monday night when the caucus doors close at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Is the Sanders surge real?

Strategists on multiple campaigns and neutral Iowa Democrats say anything can happen Monday, since polling shows several candidates bunched together at the top.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders does have a small lead in several recent polls and his campaign is the only one projecting confidence about a victory, making him the consensus favorite to win.

Still, two recent polls, from Monmouth University and USA Today/Suffolk, show former Vice President Joe Biden out front. The different pictures in surveys can be explained largely by methodological differences, which reflect the difficulty pollsters have in predicting who will turn out to caucus Monday.

2. Biden's big moment

The former vice president has been remarkably durable during the entire campaign, despite making plenty of mistakes, facing a number of attacks from primary rivals and running what is widely viewed as a less-than-stellar campaign.

That success may continue Monday if a large portion of undecided Iowa Democrats end up coming home to "Uncle Joe." But it could also run out if voters instead decide to take a risk on someone newer.

Biden's crowds in Iowa have been relatively small and lackluster compared to other candidates, but he’s been boosted by the perception that he's the most electable candidate against Trump and by his long-standing connection to Democratic voters.

3. Second can be best

Second choices are a big deal in caucuses, since supporters of candidates who don't clear the 15 percent "viability" threshold can move on to another candidate.

And some of the most important candidates to watch are those who aren't running at the top and have gotten less attention so far.

The biggest question mark is what Sen. Amy Klobuchar fans do. The Minnesota senator has hung in the race, but is still unlikely to clear the 15 percent viability threshold in most places since polls currently have her at around 10 percent.

Also keep an eye on supporters of Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who are unlikely to be viable in many precincts. Sanders is thought to be a leading second choice of all three.

4. The undecideds

Jimmy Carter helped put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he "won" them in 1976 after spending months organizing in the state, which had mostly been overlooked in previous presidential primary contests.

But Carter actually came in second to "undeclared," the preference group in caucus rooms for people who don't side with any of the viable candidates.

Polls suggest as much as 15 percent of Iowa Democrats will head into the caucuses undecided and that about half of caucusgoers say they could change their mind at the last minute. That makes Monday night's results tough to predict.

Then there's the question of who actually shows up to caucus. The Iowa Democratic Party is bracing for turnout to break the record set in 2008, when it surged to 240,000 and Barack Obama upset front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Some campaigns are predicting lower turnout, noting there has been no uptick in new voter registration for Democrats, but everyone agrees it will likely exceed the relatively weak 172,000 who came out in 2016.

Weather can have a big impact, considering it's February. There’s no snow in the forecast for most of the state, temperatures are relatively mild and accumulations from previous storms have been cleared from most roads, so conditions appear favorable.

5. Early victory claim

The only official results Monday will be coming from the Iowa Democratic Party based on "state delegate equivalents." But two other numbers will be made public for the first time: who voters are initially supporting when they arrive at a caucus, and the number of voters backing each viable candidate after voters whose first choice didn't make the 15 percent threshold have shifted to a remaining candidate if they choose to do so.

While unlikely, there could be three different candidates winning each of those numbers. That leaves plenty of room for spin, even though NBC News and other news organizations will declare a winner based only on the state delegate equivalents number.

The major campaigns also will have their own representatives at major precincts who will be reporting back what's happening in real-time via smart-phone apps, so campaigns will have a good idea about how they're doing before any results are officially announced publicly.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton declared victory before the results had been finalized. And her campaign's former Iowa communications director wrote an op-ed last week encouraging campaigns this year to do the same, assuming their own data is good.

NBC News and other news organizations will not recognize those declarations, but an early announcement could provide a crucial bounce in fundraising and enthusiasm for the campaigns.